more than 100 years later the electric car is humming along

Remember when driving used to be so… Zen? We would fuel up without a care in the world, peel away from the gas pump and blast the tunes for…

Remember when driving used to be so… Zen?

We would fuel up without a care in the world, peel away from the gas pump and blast the tunes for 500 kilometres, or so, without stopping?

Those were the days.

These days, the only ride without a care in the world for fuel-efficiency and carbon emitting is a speedy getaway in an SUV with tinted windows.

We all feel the pressure to burn less gas.

And yet, no real alternative to a gas-powered car has presented itself in our lifetimes.

The ZENN (zero emission, no noise) car has been generating plenty of thunder lately.

Canada’s gem of environmental integrity on the road, ZENN emits zero carbon emissions because it is entirely battery-powered.

Recent headlines suggest Transport Canada is blocking sales of the St. Jerome, Quebec-built car.

It is a story that reeks of corporate monkey business and some of us are collectively shaking our heads at the institutional roadblocks standing between this green vehicle and the road.

Global warming is happening.

And yet, the North American car business remains a powerful lobby because of its contributions to national employment, the GDP and don’t forget the global infrastructure that is Big Oil.

What will it take for a 100-per-cent battery-powered car to become common?

We have seen battery-powered cars before ZENN.

In 1834, electric cars were being produced.

They were more expensive to run than gasoline-powered vehicles, but considered more dependable and safe.

The 1903 Krieger was a front-wheel drive electric-gasoline hybrid car with power steering.

A gasoline engine supplemented the battery pack.

In 1922, there was the Rauch and Lang electric sedan. Once there were 50,000 of them on the road.

With the development of the starter motor for gas-powered cars, and because of their increased range, the public preference switched to the internal combustion engine.

And the rest is history.

Fuel got cheaper and cars got more fuel-efficient. There was no logic in returning to battery-powered.

Then global warming happened.

In the early 1990s, major auto companies began converting existing vehicles to battery-powered, including the Ford Ranger, Toyota’s RAV4, the Ford Ecostar and the Geo Metro.

GM also built from the ground up an aerodynamic car it called Impact EV1.

Many others were merely concept cars that never made it onto the assembly line, or else they were limited editions — only 100 or so were sold, and sometimes only in California.

They were also considered too expensive; $40,000 for a compact car, whereas ZENN is selling for $14,000.

Environmentally, electric cars are perfect.

They emit zero carbon emissions and some of them, including ZENN, can be recharged by plugging them in to a regular electric outlet outside your home.

They can be fully recharged in eight hours and will last for up to 100 kilometres.

However, could we be trading one environmental disaster for another with an influx of car batteries?

Conventional lead-acid car batteries are incredibly bad for the environment, but toxicity levels and environmental impact of nickel metal hydride batteries — the type currently used in hybrids — are much lower.

ZENN, unfortunately, uses six 12-volt lead-acid batteries.

Luckily, lead-acid batteries can be successfully recycled — just keep them out of the landfills.

ZENN’s greatest limitation for Canadians could be its poor performance in cold temperatures.

If it even starts in cold weather, battery range will likely be drastically reduced once it’s on the road.

Another detracting characteristic is that it is slow.

With a maximum speed of 40 km/h, it is being promoted as an inner-city vehicle, or one best suited for campuses and gated communities.

My guess is that ZENN would be a second or third car in most households.

Since the 1990s, many auto companies have switched gears, away from the limitations of battery-powered and towards hybrid vehicles — a combination of a small internal combustion engine and an electric motor.

And Honda surprised many at the Tokyo Motor Show in September by announcing that it will be putting a hydrogen fuel cell car into production next year for general sale.

Like ZENN, it will also be silent and carbon emission-free because it will use fuel cells, which create electricity through a chemical process that emits only water vapor at the tailpipe.

It will be able to travel 435 kilometres between refueling.

One major problem: there is a shortage of hydrogen fueling stations.

But Honda is taking the attitude that if they build it, the hydrogen stations will come.

Industry experts predict there will be more than one million hybrid gas-electric vehicles on American roads by early 2008.

But how many emission-free electric cars will there be?

ZENN is already being driven in the United States, Mexico and Europe, where it has won awards.

ZENN Motor Company, based in Toronto, says the car has met all the regulatory requirements in Canada, but the feds say that isn’t so.

Meanwhile, British Columbia (Canada’s California) has gone ahead and legislated the electric car.

With some proverbial political will, other provinces could certainly do the same.

Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.

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